Kim Wilkens “Our idea was to bring in a funhouse element so people can face their fears — to know that even if something is scary at first, it can be a lot of fun.”

Kim Wilkens is an educator and Founder of Tech-Girls, a volunteer-based, not-for-profit that works with parents, educators, and partners to provide training, resources and relationships needed to spark girls interest in STEM. As part of the internet health movement, she has been an active participant in Mozilla Learning activities, and as a MozFest volunteer. Kim organized a local SPARK hackathon for youth and collaborated on MozFest 2016 to create Learning Hub space titled “Demystify the Web!”. She has been an active and consistent contributor to curriculum, messaging, and events over multiple years.


Kim’s Story

Start by giving me an overview of what you do and what your general aims are with your work.

I’m in Charlottesville, Virginia, working at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, teaching computer science to K through 8. We started an initiative here to integrate computer science into the curriculum, which is really super exciting because one of my passions is getting more girls in tech.

I founded Tech-Girls, a local organization, and we have programs for elementary, middle and high school girls. I’m also part of the Charlottesville Women in Tech — clearly I have that sort of focus.

I would say education, technology, and social justice are my passions.

Thinking about this work that you’ve been doing, can you hone in on a specific time where you really felt a sense of success?

Well, MozFest for sure.

Tell me why.

Being a part of that space — wrangling a team and coming up with this vision in Berlin — to address the fears a lot of educators and students face when we’re talking about technology, the web, or coding.

Our idea was to bring in a funhouse element so people can face their fears — to know that even if something is scary at first, it can be a lot of fun. That idea seemed to really come off very well, so that was really cool to see.

Frankly, the diversity at the MozFest is such a breath of fresh air versus a lot of other tech conferences.

In terms of age? Gender?

All of the above.

OK. How about an example of a challenge?

Last year, I took over one of the digital arts classes. I thought, OK, I like doing those tools too. I can always bring in computer science, no matter what it is. I thought it would be an opportunity to help reach girls, and they’d want to take the class.

I only had three girls sign up the whole year — the rest were boys — and two of the three dropped because they were like, “You know what? We don’t know this. All the boys know everything. We’re not comfortable.”

It was so discouraging — that’s what I’ve been trying to address since 2012, when I started the organization. When I see how it’s still so prevalent, the stereotypes and misconceptions, it was very saddening.

How are you addressing this specific challenge?

St. Anne’s administration and teachers are very supportive and understanding of this mission. In the past, students would pick a particular area and you’d stay with it for the whole year. This year, I suggested that we cycle all kids through — make it mandatory, so everybody’s getting digital arts at some point.

It’s been amazing having a better proportion of boys and girls in the class — and they’re all feeling successful. It’s been a whole different experience. This is a proof of concept of why we need to get these things into the curriculum for all students — so it’s not a choice.

Do you think having a more even proportion of girls and boys was part of what made it different? Or was it that there were also boys taking the class who weren’t good at it?

All of the above. The proportion made a difference in the atmosphere of the classroom. It also made a difference in that it was all different levels of learning from both boys and girls — it was reaching a much broader audience. We wanted to tell the kids, “Hey, try this out, you might like it,  and besides, it’s a skill that you are going to be able to use often in your future. I think they’re starting to realize that now.

I want to turn now to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, keeping the Internet open and free. What for you is the open Internet?

It’s the ability to have access to it, whenever you need it. To have it not be corporatized — without all the ads hitting you in the face. It’s also having access to tools that, no matter your ability to pay or not, you can use them. We actually just had a Charlottesville Women in Tech meetup this week to talk all about open tools and what that means for education.

I use open tools with the kids as much as possible because I want them to be able to use them again no matter what situation they’re in, and not just when they’re in class. Some people are surprised by this because I work at a private school where most folks have the means to afford technology. When I first came to the school, they were proud of the high-end tools they were using. I’m like, “Nope, we’re not going to use any of that anymore.”

Give me an example of how these open aspects of the Internet have been really important to you in your life?

Mozilla is a great example, especially being part of the Teach the Web movement — having access to not only the tools, but the community around it. That’s really important to me when I’m integrating tools with students.

There’s so many tools out there. There are tools for everything, but not all of them are great. I’m pretty careful about how I pick and choose the tools. Mozilla would be an example of the kind of tools that are useful — as is Scratch, with MIT. If it’s something I want to integrate and invest my time in, I make sure that there’s a community around it as well.

There’s also tools I need to solve the problem of the day, or for a specific project, so we might just take the tool for that. It’s more of an exercise in finding the tool that you need for something specific among the many tools out there. You don’t have to be proficient in every single tool, right? Be proficient in understanding how to find them and how to use them for what you need.

Getting more specific about Mozilla, how did you get involved with them? What has that felt like for you?

It’s been great. Somewhere there’s a history of when I got involved on a blog post. I believe I got involved in 2012. I can’t remember if it was Chad Sansing that introduced me or if I introduced Chad, but joining Mozilla activities with another educator was key.

To the story of Mozilla. There was a connected learning experience that was on Google+ that I got involved with — that sparked me to start a connected learning experience for women in tech. I started using the tools and making curriculum or projects out of them and sharing them. Then those projects and curriculum were shared out again, and I got good feedback that way.

I also had a positive experience helping Doug Belshaw with the curriculum map. He actually wanted community feedback and took me seriously, even though he didn’t agree with me all the time. I feel like Mozilla values a variety of opinions and a variety of people with different backgrounds — and that’s valuable to me.

What would you highlight as the key impact that Mozilla has had on your life or your work or your organization?

All the Teach the Web materials are embedded in everything I do. Whether I’m teaching here in school, or doing workshops outside of school, it’s always part of it. I like knowing that I’m part of this movement about the open web and inclusiveness and things like that. It’s a very nice thing to know that I have a community that I can fall back on when the chips are down.

So there’s a part of it that keeps you going?


What feedback would you have for Mozilla? What can they do better?

It was really abrupt when Thimble changed. Obviously, there’s a lot of  change that happens to technology, but with educators, our changes are much slower. There needs to be a better bridge between us — the rate of change and how it gets communicated and how it gets pushed out to the education community in general. I’m an early adopter, I’m a go out there and find stuff, but there’s others that need help along the way.

I miss the Google+ community — I’m not a fan of Discourse. I love the idea that GitHub is used for all the openness and stuff, but again, I think it’s a technical barrier and excludes a lot of people that should be involved with the movement.

Anything else?


OK. We’re collecting these types of stories from all around the world, all different types of people, different levels of engagement. How might the stories that we’re collecting be useful to you, if at all?

When I share with others why I’m interested in Mozilla, it would be useful to share these stories with them as well . They understand why I’m involved with Mozilla — I’m a technology activist. I know there are stories of other types of people, less technical people, and how they got involved. It would be great to get more people participating that don’t necessarily have a background in tech, to begin with — which has been my goal from the beginning.

That’s super helpful feedback, thank you. Is there anything more that you want to tell me or ask me?

No, I don’t think so.